Friday, September 08, 2006

Rafting Down the Neretva with the Red Bull Boys and the Mermaid

When Hawley, my much younger, athletic and braver friend from NYC, said she was coming to Sarajevo, so how about rafting down the Neretva River? I had a counter-proposal: how about a spa in Slovenia?

She persisted. Then. my friends Ann and Bob Posner, told me they'd just been rafting and it was wonderful. She is my age and he will tell you proudly that he is 73, so I couldn't plead age. Weren't you just freezing? I asked and they explained that you wear wetsuits, so I couldn't make my "ruined by Florida" argument. Expense? Nope -- under $50 for 6 hours of rafting plus full breakfast and trout dinner. Trapped, I agreed to go.

We set out at 7:30 because the EuropeRafting people told us to be in Konjic (CONE-yitz) at 9 and it's an hour from Sarajevo. Getting OUT of Sarajevo, that hell of narrow, one-way streets filled with honking maniacs going in the opposite direction, takes about 30 hair-raising, white-knuckle gripping minutes at the wheel.

This, I announced, skidding around a tram is plenty excitement for me today. I'll wait at the restaurant for you to go rafting and ride you back.

This seemed like an even better idea when we arrived at Stari Mlin -- the Old Mill restaurant on the riverbank where the rafting excursion began. Samir -- a gym teacher gone to seed who runs the operation -- and the other guides (they pronounced it GWEEDs) told us to relax. They served up dishes of yoghurt and burek. Sure! I could easily stay here for six hours, eating, watching the Neretva run over the rocky river bed below the deck of the restaurant, I figured.

But Hawley persisted. We were going rafting.

Or were we?

Two hours later we were still seated at our table. It seems the rest of the rafters going out that day were a little late getting in from Tuzla -- about two hours from Konjic.

Just after 11, the Tuzla crew finally arrived with a flourish -- nine young men swinging two cases of cans, swigging on cigarettes, hooting and laughing.

They were a bunch of bar-tenders being rewarded for their vigor selling Red Bull Energy Drink with a free rafting trip. Great, I told Hawley, I'm gonna be Mom going out on the river with the Frat Boys.

I thought I could not feel more foolish. Then we got our wetsuits.

I went into a fitting room to wiggle and squirm my way into a black rubbery full-length girdle. It came with rubber socks and what looked like bowling shoes to protect against the rocks in the river. And an orange plastic helmet.

You will note that no pictures accompany this dispatch.

The gym teacher and gweeds loaded us next into an SUV for a rollicking 30 minutes ride up a mountain. The Red Bull boys smoked and quaffed energy drinks, tossing the cans around the car. We pulled our rafts on a trailer behind us and we headed for a point 23 kilometers up the river to put in.

Next came a safety lecture from Samir that really worried Hawley. It wasn't all the stuff about how natural it is to fall out of a raft and how important it is, especially if you are male, to keep your legs together and passively swim if you do. What worried Hawley was that Samir smoked throughout his lecture and kept waving his cigarette around dramatically to make his points. She waited for him to touch it against the rubber raft and blow it up.

Finally, the moment we'd been wating for all morning. Stiff limbed in our body-cast girdles and bowling shoes we clambored into the rafts, took up our paddles, and set out.

In all seriousness, the scenery was spectacular. I've had a scene from the canyon we paddled through on my desk since January. It came from a calendar and it looks as if it had been done by a child with a baby watercolor set -- pure blue sky, plain white mountain cliffs and detergent green water. If the Neretva were in New Jersey, Hawley commented, we'd be looking to fine a polluter big time.

Powered by all that Red Bull the frat boys were chemically unable to sit still and so did much of the work, but Hawley and I participated. We heaved to when the gweed yelled VESLAJ (paddle)! and we grinned good naturedly when for the 98th time the boys slapped their paddles against the water like a beaver tail to make even more noise or splashed on us the coldest water I have ever inserted a body part into. More than occassionally, they just stood up and leaped into the river or clamored from the raft onto a rock ledge to climb up for a dive.

Apparently, I told Hawley, there are fewer concerns about liability here than in the US.

We pulled up to a little sandy cove for a rest and a chance to swim. The river is full of beautiful flat oval rocks, green, gray and brown, shot through with white stripes. I somehow got into the water from the boat despite the getup I was trapped within but I almost passed on. The water was so icy even through a wet suit that it froze my lungs. I could not breathe.

Red Bull coursing through their veins, the boys felt nothing as they lept like seals in a Sea World shows from the rocks into the rapids yelling JAKAZIMA which sounds like a Japanese Kamikazi pilot slogan but actually is Bosnian for FREEZING or literally, STRONG WINTER.

After all the swimming,diving and rock collecting, Hawley sat sunbathing on a big flat rock. She pulled her girdle half way off and flipped her blonde hair over one shoulder. Behind her I said, You look like a mermaid there! And Nevin, one of the bartenders in our raft, looked up and breathed in appreciation, "Yeah, nice."

Mr. Mohito as we christened him has been chasing the Mermaid ever since.

Because we got such a late start we entered the canyon late in the afternoon. The narrow strip of river runs between two sheer rises of mountains and late in the afternoon that means the sun is shielded from the water. And we were wet and shivering before long. Hawley commented that my blue lips contrasted nicely with the orange helmet.

Our gweed told us that in summer the cliffs sometimes get so hot that when in storms rain hit the rock like grenades and great pieces explode into the river.

Hence the orange helmets.

Six hours is a long time to paddle and the rapids and falls had long begun to lose their appeal by the end of this trip. But the Red Bull boys were not to be hurried. Several times our lighter raft pulled over to shore to wait for the second raftwhere the riders paused repeatedly for smoke breaks. The sight of these burley guys pulling away like galley slaves and then halting in calmer waters to pass around a damp pack of smokes and light up was hilarious.

Apparently, I told Hawley, there are fewer concerns about lung cancer here than in the US.

We straggled back to the restaurant in the weak light of late afternoon, peeled off the disgusting wet suits and put on dry clothes. A pair of jeans and t-shirt has never made me so happy.

Then we sat down to a dinner of soup, trout and potatoes. Mr. Mohito wrote his phone number on a slip of paper for Hawley and promised her a wicked cocktail if she bought the Cuban rum.

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